A year after ‘Japan passing’
The author is a Tokyo correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
In April 2018, when cherry blossoms were falling, a cartoon on a Japanese newspaper caught my eyes. Six leaders of Northeast Asia were depicted as cherry blossom petals, and only the petal representing Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was falling off. As the possibility of the first North Korea-U.S. summit was increasing, only Abe was falling off. It represented the reality that Japan was excluded from the discussion on North Korea’s denuclearization.
After a year, how has the situation changed? Abe is still the only head of state among concerned parties not to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. While it is unknown what is going on behind the scenes, North Korea hasn’t answered Japan’s call to “meet without conditions.” But it is not just Abe that’s growing distant. President Moon Jae-in, who has been focused on inter-Korean relations, is losing ground due to a deadlock in North Korea-U.S. relations.
I heard from a source in Pyongyang that North Korea is treating inter-Korean relations and North Korea-U.S. relations separately. After the second North Korea-U.S. summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, North Korea reshuffled its foreign policy lineup. Vice Chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party, Kim Yong-chol, who had overseen foreign policy, has left the United Front Department. It means that the foreign ministry and the department — which moved as one under Kim Yong-chol — are now separate.
A year ago, a North Korean source said South Korea, North Korea and the United States were moving as two wheels of a wagon. But now, it seems that South and North Korea and North Korea and the United States are pushing different wagons. It means that a place for South Korea is not needed between North Korea and the United States as Kim and Trump now can exchange letters and talk directly. It may be why North Korea told South Korea, “Don’t act as an obtrusive mediator.”
A source who visited Pyongyang recently said that Kim turned away from President Moon after his April 11 trip to the United States. Kim reportedly was disappointed by Moon failing to persuade Washington to help resume tours to Mount Kumgang and restart the Kaesong Industrial Complex. Pyongyang believes these were matters that Seoul could decide on its own. Rather than rekindling talks, South Korea is disappointed by North Korea and the United States.
It doesn’t matter which petals remain now. It is only natural that petals fall over time. The next move is important. After Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Pyongyang, state leaders are trying to expand influence on North Korea. It is time to review President Moon’s role as a mediator.
JoongAng Ilbo, June 21, Page 29